Beer can shortage goes beyond aluminum tariffs

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PORTLAND — Although local craft brewers are reluctant to talk about it, they are facing a tight supply of cans.

One of the only brewers willing to discuss the problem, Paul Lorrain of Funky Bow Brewery & Beer Co. in Lyman, on Aug. 29 said his company has had particular difficulty obtaining increasingly popular 16-ounce cans and as a result has twice had to shut down beer production this year.

Lorrain said it’s easy to blame the shortage on a 10 percent tariff on imported aluminum announced earlier this year by the Trump administration, but the problem has been brewing for two years as large beverage companies have consumed more can production.

“When you can’t move beer out of kegs into cans, it messes up the brewery schedule,” he said.

While other local craft brewers either did not reply or declined to discuss supply-chain questions, the Maine Brewers’ Guild confirmed there is a shortage of cans.

“A combination of factors is impacting many of our brewers’ ability to get cans,” spokesman Sean Sullivan said in an Aug. 30 email.

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The Guild webpage lists more than 80 members, and craft brewing in Maine has burgeoned over the last decade, with most brewers now using cans instead of bottles.

Like Lorrain, Sullivan said tariffs are only part of the problem.

“The consolidation of vendors, to aluminum prices and tariffs, to logistics … is leading to back orders and difficulties for brewers big and small,” he said.

Whether a brewer cans using his own equipment, or relies on a mobile canning provider, aluminum has replaced glass at breweries large and small.

Baxter Brewing in Lewiston was founded in 2010 and never bottled its beers, while older breweries, including Allagash in Portland, are now canning their products.

Brewers typically rely on Ball Canning and Crown Cork & Seal for cans, Lorrain said. But the larger beverage companies have set up long-term contracts for beer and soft drinks, which gives the canners the ability to schedule longer production runs without the need to shut down production while they change labels.

That enhances profitability for the can companies, but leaves brewers who need smaller production runs in a bind.

Sullivan said he knew of “smaller brewers unable to convince a vendor to sell less than a full truckload of cans.”

Shortages so far have not had much impact on retail sales at Old Port Spirits and Cigars at 79 Commercial St., manager Kevin Casey said Aug. 30.

“All the cool kids are doing it in cans now,” he said of an industry shift to aluminum.

Casey said wineries and distilleries are also using more cans, and advances in labeling and mobile canning companies like Iron Heart have lowered barriers to using cans instead of bottles.

Lorrains said Funky Bow may shift to nothing but 12-ounce cans, even for specialty brews, although lead times for getting cans are growing from a few weeks to maybe months.

“If we were in normal times, it wouldn’t matter, we would time our brewing with our can deliveries,” he said.

Sullivan, meanwhile, was not optimistic about an end to the shortage.

“It is a problem without a clear end in sight and potential to get worse,” he said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Baxter Brewing Co. founder and President Luke Livingston gives a toast April 22, 2018, in the tasting room of the Lewiston brewery. (Sun Journal file photo)

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